The dilapidated, junk-strewn, under-construction grounds offer many opportunities for mistaken identity, even if you're working from the not-entirely accurate map put out by the Seattle Arts Commission. Is that art, that square black concrete thing that looks like a house? Oops, no, it's an underground vault for power lines. What about that car stuffed with boxes and trash, parked behind a fence next to a hangar building? As far as I know, that was art, as were the blue sand-filled bags atop a storage garage's roof. I could very well be wrong, though.
The art on display leans toward the overdecorated, underconceived work common to Seattle's alternative spaces, where most of the local artists in this somewhat international exhibition frequently show. A piece by Soil's Sean Miller and Craig Miller combines hanging plaster eggs, empty beer and wine bottles with custom labels, several string hammocks, and birdcages made from circuit boards, to no real effect. Several large multi-colored metal sculptures bring nothing more to mind than Tinkertoys. Other sculptures, though simple in form, suffer from lackluster execution or conceptual mushiness (Helen Lessick's plastic-sheet rowboat, distorted by wind atop the naval base's gatehouse comes to mind).
The pieces that work best tend to be subtle interventions in the landscape, light on meaning, but carefully built with sly sensibilities. Michael McCafferty's earth mound ridged by a graceful arc of dirt works with the topography of its site in the tradition of Martin Puryear, the great sculptor who has a work in the collection of the nearby NOAA. Harriet Sander fills the vestibule behind a locked door with institutional blue-and-white-striped pillows (with a cane peeking out from behind an ajar door inside), while David Nechak took a disused tennis court behind some barracks, repainted the court's lines, hung an orange plastic construction fence for a net (camouflaging the installation brilliantly), and painstakingly attached 100 or more tennis balls to the court's surface and the chainlink fence around it. Another charmer is Ellen Ziegler's piece: A long rope leads you under the canopy of an evergreen tree, where, as you follow the rope up the trunk, you discover some 50 ceramic bells, with dried fish, candles, or animal parts hanging from their clappers. Not sure what it means, but it looks, feels, and sounds great.
Iole Allessandrini, showing as part of the Seattle Arts Commission's Five Sites exhibit, turns in a great large-scale work that is nearly imperceptible. Her piece consists almost entirely of mown grass and chalk. Three rolling hillocks near the lakeshore have diagonal lines mown into them in an argyle pattern. In places, the composition is reinforced with chalk lines like those laid down at a ball field. I'd decided the piece was an illustration of the ways humans find order in nature, or subject it to our geometries, whether in a cornfield or a baseball field. Then I approached a small vent in an underground structure, and was dismayed to hear a mellifluous female voice speaking from it in Italian-accented English. (Just like an artist to screw up a perfectly simple piece with extraneous words.) So I slid past the vent quickly, hearing only the word "nostalgia." It seems every other artist in Seattle, particularly the photographers, are obsessed with nostalgia or memory at the moment, usually as an excuse to work with their family photographs or to imagine themselves a history that somehow never involves living in suburban tract homes and watching HBO. But when I passed Allessandrini's vent a second time, the sounds turned out to be excerpts from Italo Calvino's wonderful novel Invisible Cities. Not a bad choice, and it gives the grid a nice twist, hinting at the endless spread of human habitation across a landscape.
Many Horsehead artists could benefit from studying this piece, which allows multiple readings without ever giving the impression that the artist is unaware of those possibilities. Too many works here are too weakly conceived to hold any meaning whatsoever -- their scattered, intuitive natures may seem like virtues to their creators, but to an audience that wants to engage with them, they just look like messes.